Comment: Malcolm Guite - The Ancient Rambler
Updated: Sep 5
There are people whose mere existence sparks in me a spontaneous sense of relief; a feeling of relief that a particular kind of life is actually being lived in the real world, and relief of their living in spite of a seeming improbability. The filmmaker Werner Herzog with all his beautiful Quixotean (I'm summoning this word to avoid the word quixotic) accomplishments has left me shaking my head in relieved admiration, as have a few songwriters like the implausibly young and brilliant Joanna Newsom, or the unmistakable, until-recently-living Leonard Cohen. Once such an extraordinary person dies, they leave behind their art for all time, yet something is taken out of the present moment, leaving a stubborn shadow of doubt as to whether the present moment could ever again hope to obtain a spirit of that kind.
I have recently re-experienced this sense as I began to pay attention to Malcolm Guite, the English poet, songwriter, and Anglican priest. Guite has not, to my knowledge, wrestled his art physically from the jaws of nature in the way Herzog has, nor has he reached the poetic peaks of Cohen. What he has done is cobbled together a series of lives and stitched them into a convincing and admirable whole. He is a person of vast interests, learning, and quirks. And, as followers of the Nazarene are meant to do, he gives generously of whatever pearls he happens to find in his fields.
Have a look at a few of the homely videos he has made during the corona-era lockdown. Here homely is meant in the far pleasanter English sense. The mysterious videographer always seems to find him bustling about in his study, and Guite is always happily 'surprised' by the company. 'Ah, come on in, nice of you to drop by.' That sort of thing every time. And each time the poet pulls an old book from the shelf, introduces it while fussing about his glasses and pockets and pipe, and settles down to read a page or two aloud, only to wave us briskly though pleasantly away again 'until next time.'
You may be tempted, having seen a video of this long-white-bearded English priest – swilling scotch and lighting his pipe, waxing poetic on Coleridge and John Donne with a guitar in the corner of the room – to suspect that he is indulging in some kind of old-timey character acting. But in that case I'm afraid you're just where Guite wants you. Looking a little further into his available lectures reveals a man of quite astonishing depth, vast reading, and – always a sign of the real deal – an ability to beautifully recite lots and lots and lots of verse from memory. See for example his exceptional talk on Coleridge's Mariner.
Or a remarkable discussion which dares you to sneer at Tolkien as a mere writer of fantasy.
And then there is the generosity. Visit his website and be greeted rather ludicrously with a picture of Guite, guitar-handed, wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt and presumably standing before a giant fan just off camera. But make your way to his blog and find an avalanche of his poetry, freely available to read as well as hear. At the bottom of the page he modestly asks whether, if you happen to have the inclination, you could throw a few pounds his way - “not every time of course” - and buy him a cup of coffee. “But please do not feel any obligation!”
These poems are reliably very beautiful and thoughtful. Many of them are responses to Psalms, and unlike the rather boisterous tendencies of American Christianity, where one either wears it like a neon sign or else takes the greatest of pains to never let a prayer enter their temporal lobe, the religious character of his work is unadorned, sensible to believer and nonbeliever alike, and utterly a part of and in love with the English language.
Malcolm Guite the songwriter, I have to say, has not overwhelmed me. Songwriting talent and poetic talent is so similar and yet there is often a barrier which distinguishes those gifts. His talents fall decidedly on the poetic side, I think. But this mixed view he anticipates in his audiences and does not seem to mind at all. He will go about his business, following his passions conspicuously, and anyone that wanders by to watch may just as easily wander away without guilt.
One word on where this sort of old-minded love of words and poetry comes from. A clear source is from Guite's mother, an evidently extraordinary woman who was born in 1918 and died only a few weeks ago. “My sense of poetry is part of the very fabric of life,” Guite said in his video tribute to her, “and just the way things are, and the way the heart leaps and the voice lifts into elevated speech and rhythm and rhyme comes from the way my mother would quote poetry.” He recalls how the first time he heard The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was when his mother recited it to him as they were at sea. “Almost all the poems she had books of she also had in her heart.” A more natural bestowing of knowledge and beauty could hardly be dreamed up, and there is for us possibly a glimpse of a time when the art of memory, although by no means practiced like in the ancient days, was yet being practiced substantially more than it is in our own day. There are benefits to having older parents. See his moving tribute below.
This is a person, as I say, I was relieved to find existed, and maybe you will be happy to know of him too. The relief, it seems, lies in seeing how content, self-possessed, and comfortable Malcolm Guite is, both as artist and as guide to greater art. And better than that: Such a life – he goes out of his way to show the rest of us – is not only admirable, but obtainable.